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Defender of Spain's infant democracy

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: March 26, 2014

Maijn picture, Spain's Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, left, meets US President Jimmy Carter at the White House in Washington in 1980. Suárez, Spain's first democratically elected prime minister after decades of right-wing rule under General Franco, died on Sunday. He was 81

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Adolfo Suárez, who has died aged 81, was Spain's first elected prime minister after the Franco dictatorship and a key figure in the country's transition back to democracy.

A lawyer by training, Suárez led a new generation of Spanish politicians who filled the power vacuum left by the death of General Francisco Franco in late 1975.

The Government announced three days of official mourning and said that Suárez would receive a state funeral. In a televised address on Sunday, King Juan Carlos called Suárez "a loyal friend" who had helped lead the country back to democracy, calling it "one of the most brilliant chapters in Spanish history".

King Juan Carlos picked Suárez, who was then 43, to form a government in 1976. At the time, Suárez was a successful but relatively obscure apparatchik of the Franco regime. He had little of the power-brokering experience that was required to heal deep divisions in Spanish society after four decades of dictatorship and international isolation. Still, despite his ties to Franco, Suárez was relatively free of any of the stigma that might have attached to him as a member of the regime. He was too young to be associated with the horrors of the Civil War and the early and most brutal period of Franco's rule.

By June 1977, when Spain held its first democratic election since 1936, the year the civil war began, Suárez "epitomised the changing face of Spain and the emergence of a new middle class," Robert Graham wrote in Spain: A Nation Comes of Age, a book about Spain's democratic transition. Graham, a foreign correspondent in Madrid during Suárez's premiership, added: "His clean, youthful looks were in themselves a breath of fresh air. He represented what many Spaniards aspired to be — a provincial boy made good, with a devout wife and a large happy family."

The 1977 election was won by the Union of the Democratic Centre, formed just ahead of the vote as a loose, centre-right coalition.

Suárez did not run as the official leader of the UCD, but he made an address to the nation on the eve of the vote that positioned him at its helm. He could claim direct backing from King Juan Carlos, who had himself been handpicked by Franco and crowned only two days after the dictator's death.

"The point of departure is the recognition of pluralism in our society — we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring it," Suárez told lawmakers in 1976.

This pluralism included the Communist Party, which had been banned under Franco. In a secret meeting with Santiago Carrillo, Spain's long-exiled Communist leader, Suárez offered to legalise the Communists in return for a pledge that they would join the election. His engineering of a wave of political conciliation and a smooth switch to democratic elections — as well as a successful referendum on a new constitution in 1978 — were the high water marks of his premiership.

By the start of 1981, Suárez was facing an internal party rebellion and trailing in the polls behind the Socialist Party. His response was to resign, a decision he did not fully explain, although he hinted that any other option, including calling an early general election, risked making Spain's return to democracy a "parenthesis in history" if the socialists took power and provoked a takeover by the military, which was dead set against their running the country.

In fact, in February 1981, a month after Suárez's resignation announcement, a group of military officers did attempt a coup, starting with a takeover of the Congress of Deputies, the lower house of Spain's parliamentary system, while it was in session voting on the appointment of a successor to Suárez. Members of Spain's military police fired shots into the air and most lawmakers took cover behind their seats. A few, however, including Suárez and his deputy prime minister, Manuel Gutierrez Mellado, stood up to challenge the rebels. The coup attempt was over within a day.

Afterward Suárez sought a political comeback, leading a new party, the Democratic and Social Centre, known as CDS. He was re-elected to the lower house of Parliament in 1982, but the CDS failed to make a major impact and gradually lost support. Suárez resigned his party leadership and retired from politics in 1991.

Adolfo Suárez González was born on September 25, 1932, in the agrarian region of Castile and Léon. Suárez studied law at Salamanca University. He joined the ranks of the National Movement, the only political party under Franco, with the support of the governor of Avila, the city where Suárez's family lived.

Initially the governor's personal secretary, he rapidly climbed the ranks of the National Movement and was promoted to his own governorship, of Segovia, another city near Madrid, in 1968. He spent a few years running Spain's national radio and television.

Suárez's wife, María Amparo Illana Elórtegui, died of cancer in 2001. A daughter, María Amparo Suárez Illana, died of cancer three years later. His survivors include four other children.

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